I have a confession to make. I once adored Confederate history so much I subscribed to the Civil War Times. I attended the 50th Anniversary showing of Gone With the Wind at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. I went to author Margaret Mitchell’s first home, which had been turned into a museum. I have a hardback second printing copy of the novel somewhere in my storage shed. I even read Mitchell’s biography and became enamored with her spunky journalist background. I visited Civil War battlegrounds and imagined myself an embattled Southern belle surrounded by heroic men returning home in homespun uniforms and eating radishes from the destroyed earth outside my family’s plantation. How did I get there, as a teenage girl who’d grown up in New Jersey before moving to my mother’s home state of South Carolina?
Gone With the Wind, of course. It is perhaps the first American YA book, the Harry Potter of its time, becoming the biggest (and most beloved) bestseller in history, winning the Pulitzer, and eventually being turned into an epic four-hour movie starring Clark Gable and the gorgeous Vivien Leigh, which, adjusted for inflation, is the number one-grossing movie of all time in American film history.
The sweeping novel worked its magic on me with its scorching love triangle between Scarlett O’Hara, Ashley Wilkes, and Rhett Butler, with its romanticism of the Old South and the Lost Cause, with its loving slaves and strapping men willing to die for their land and way of life. Scarlett is a heroine for the ages, with her maddening petulance and her enduring strength. The KKK wasn’t bad at all, it was just men protecting their women from the brutal freed blacks roaming the countryside. Ah, to be that naive again that I could accept this as the real story of the South.
I stumbled on the book quite by mistake. As a bored 14-year-old at a family gathering in Anderson, S.C., I wandered into my aunt’s bedroom and picked up a book from her shelf, threw myself on her bed, and began reading. She saw me with it and approved immediately, saying something like, I can’t believe you’ve never read that book. It’s one of my all-time favorites. I kept my nose in that book until I finished it the next day.
The slaves were cheerful, dignified, and devoted to their masters and their families. Dilcey is so grateful to Master O’Hara for buying her and her daughter so they could be with her husband Pork, a slave that O’Hara won in a poker game. I don’t recall pausing to consider the reality of what owning people meant — at all. They were just funny characters who seemed happy and well cared for and just part of the family. I mean, what girl wouldn’t want their very own servant to help them get dressed and do their hair and make them fresh biscuits and gravy? It sounded pretty damn lovely.
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Before reading GWTW, the only thing I knew about Yankees was that my mom had married one and moved North with him, much to the dismay of her very Southern family. The history I had studied up until that point had been taught to me in Jersey, where the Civil War barely registered as a blip. By the time I read GWTW, I was living in the South — first in Columbia and then in Atlanta. Schools down here have a very different approach to Southern history — not that I was really paying attention — so you can be sure there was nothing in those middle and high school years to challenge the romantic story of Scarlett, the 16-year-old hottie with a 17-inch waist and her pick of beaus.
I didn’t start thinking critically about GWTW until college. I majored in English, and the department at Kennesaw State University (located right down the street from Kennesaw Mountain, where Confederates saw a small victory in blocking Sherman’s assault on Atlanta) was stocked with progressive Southerners hell-bent on including previously silenced voices. Instead of adhering to the Western Canon, we sidestepped to Southern and African-American literature, and I dove into the words of Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, and Richard Wright. White writers like William Faulkner introduced to me to a much more brutal version of the South, one that echoed stories my mom had told me about growing up in Anderson, where the black maid wasn’t allowed to sit at the dinner table with the family and the n-word was used so effortlessly that as an adult she finally had to forbid her parents from using it in her home when they would come visit.
But perhaps Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn were the first books that awakened me from that gauzy antebellum dream Margaret Mitchell had so skillfully woven into my squishy teenage brain. Suddenly, I felt mortified by my uncritical love of Gone With the Wind. Kind of like how I feel about those acid-washed Z Cavarrici’s with the fold-over waistband that I thought were so cute back then. A love for the antebellum South, though, is a much more dangerous and destructive impulse than bad fashion choices. It casts our entire history in a false narrative that subjugates the reality of the black slave experience to a storybook version that simply didn’t exist.
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I wasn’t the only one susceptible to Gone With the Wind’s charms. As Ryan Cooper pointed out in his column “How America Forgot the True History of the Civil War,” published by The Week, the book and its ilk can be blamed for cementing the new narrative of the Civil War that became accepted after the failure of the Reconstruction, when northern Republicans abandoned the newly freed blacks to their fate in the South. It’s when the Lost Cause became the reason for fighting the war — not slavery. It’s when “state’s rights” became something worth dying for, when in fact the Confederates were willing to die only to protect the obscene wealth and profit landowners enjoyed by owning people.
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Watching Charlottesville coverage, I have been annoyed at the constant references to the founding principles of our great country, and I think that’s another narrative that needs to be debunked. Sure we hold these truths to be self-evident, but the U.S. Constitution codified slavery in very stark terms that shocked me in Civics class back in high school (maybe this was the first text that woke me to the injustices of that storied Southern plantation life). Blacks were property, not even counted as complete people. Our country was founded and built on keeping people unequal — blacks and women too. The 20th century has been a long battle against white male supremacy, and we must not stop now. And one great symbol of our progress is the toppling of Confederate monuments. I’m looking at you John C. Calhoun — you got to go.
The progress is incremental, and for each step forward, it feels like we take two steps back, but we are indeed moving forward. We are in the death throes of white male supremacy — make no mistake, they are still in charge but their grip is loosening— and those of us who believe, like Miss Scarlett, that tomorrow is another day, will continue to fight for justice and liberty, for all.